Canadian film has been many things over the years—edgy, character driven, sexy, black comic, silly, philosophical—but it’s rarely aspired and never achieved the status of epic cinema. Until now. The immensely talented Paul Gross—actor, writer, director—has created in Passchendaele a truly Canadian movie, filled with romance, horror and emotion, inspired by one of the key events in this nation’s history.
Gross took on the task of recreating the immense and terrifying battle in Passchendaele, when thousands of Canadian soldiers fought and died to bring victory to the Allied forces in Belgium during World War One. It was in this cauldron of blood and heroism and devastation that the idea of Canada as a nation became firmly implanted in the minds and hearts of the British Empire and the rest of Imperial Europe.
As children, many of us read the following lines:
In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
John McCrae wrote his legendary poem after the First Battle of Ypres, Belgium in 1915; Passchendaele was fought in neighbouring terrain two years later. Paul Gross was inspired to make Passchendaele in part through anecdotes he heard from his grandfather Michael Dunne, who fought in that battle. As a homage, Gross plays a character named Dunne, whose life only partially mirrors that of his grandparent—until late in the film, when he has to adopt a pseudonym to reenlist and go back to the front in Belgium. The name he assumes, supposedly that of another relative, is McCrae.
Though it’s a throwaway gesture—no one comments on it during the film, nor is Flanders Field read aloud—the simple act of renaming himself McCrae speaks volumes about Gross and what he’s attempting to do in the film. For once, a Canadian artist has assumed the mantle of historian and promulgator of this nation’s journey to maturity. Knowing that Gross spent a decade on the project, and that he worked tirelessly along with co-producer Niv Fichman and other colleagues to raise $20 millions says much, as well.
Passchendaele is a project fraught with a passionate desire to bring one of this country’s stories to the screen. That’s why it’s a “movie,” not a “film.” Gross has worked in theatre and television—famously parodying Stratford in the sophisticated and very funny Slings and Arrows—and he is someone who clearly wants to communicate with an audience.
His character of Dunne/McCrae is an honourable soldier, shell-shocked by the horrors of the war, who simply wants to find love and peace back in Canada. He finds love, but more conflict, in the arms of a beautiful nurse, Sarah, played winningly by Caroline Dhavernas. Their doomed romance reminds one of the central tale in Ernest Hemingway’s classic A Farewell to Arms, which was made into a film starring Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes, back in the ‘30s. Cooper also starred in another great WW1 film, Sgt. York, and in both works, the futility of war is emphasized.
It’s a tall order to compare Cooper to Gross but his performance is a reasonable homage to the great Hollywood icon. In both, we get a sense of an old fashioned verity: the man who is brave because he must be, since it is an essential part of his nature. Ms. Dhavernas fulfills this reviewer’s expectations: she has the dignity and presence required of a true romantic lead.
Passchendaele will not be universally loved and truth be told, like all melodramas, there are stock characters and situations in some scenes. But it’s an epic and true in its intentions. I urge you to embrace it.